BILP 2011: Honoring Linen Culture Quebecoise

A casual traveler along the Chemin du Roy between Montreal and Quebec last summer might have spotted the colorful roadside banners but kept on going. Anyone tracking the 4th Biennale Internationale du Lin de Portneuf (BILP) would have slowed down, knowing they heralded a textile show in the neighborhood.

The Linen Biennial, a suite of international exhibitions at heritage sites in the Portneuf region by the St. Lawrence River (June 25-October 2, 2011), honored the flax and linen culture that 17th century farmers fr0m Ulster, Ireland, brought to Quebec. Each successive biennial has offered exhibitions focused on fashion, fine art and craft.

The 2011 presentations in wooden churches and stone mills (restored as culture centers) featured well-known artists fr0m the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, Belgium, and France as well as Canada. Each was sparely elegant, scaled to the modest proportions of its site. “We live in the country but wanted to present something of quality,” Dominique Roy, Director of the Biennial, said in an interview. Apart from the main exhibitions, environmental installations by local artists lured visitors toward nature—e.g., into a swamp where seasonal changes altered linen interventions like backdrops for trees. Following clues to the various events was like a scavenger hunt through several villages.

The signature banner’s mosaic-like curves showed a detail of Carole Simard-Laflamme’s complex sculpture installed in the balcony at St. Joseph’s Church, Deschambault. In an opposite corner a vast spread of pieced canvas laid before a Buddhist figure looking ambiguously comfortable in its Christian setting. No part of the church or the adjacent presbytery, not even the rafters in the attic, was off-limits for Toucher (To Touch), the biennial’s fine art segment. Curator Danielle Lord, an independent arts and craft professional, challenged about a dozen artists—they normally don’t work in fabric—to explore the physical potential and emotional connotations of linen.

Outside, a field-full of blue flax flowers printed on vinyl and attached to spikes in the ground expressed a joyous welcome. (They were John Freeman’s and Lyndal Osborne’s contribution.) Hands were represented in more than one work, including Luce Pelletier’s haunting hollow glove shapes, gesturing networks of almost invisible thread.

Among the works responsive to the show’s title was a tactile (but not touchable) installation in which felt-covered tools, domestic implements and natural objects were scattered on the floor. A felted push-broom, upright against a wall, suggested that all would be swept away.

Belgian textile designer Daniel Henry curated Homemade/Handmade, the biennial’s fashion component at Moulin Marcoux, Pont-Rouge.* The young professional designers he selected were apparel-minded but also interested in hands-on involvement with fabric. Some created fabric directly fr0m thread; others used linen cloth’s firmness to define the shape and volume of clothing.

A multi-faceted presentation helped overcome the problem of giving life to clothes displayed off the body. Each garment was exhibited as a 2- or 3-dimensional artwork emphasizing its visual aspects; nearby, a life-size photo showed a model wearing it in an action pose. Thus, Mylene Boisvert’s lacy wrap laid out flat in a circle was also shown as a body covering. Off to one side of the room, a rack contained “feeling” samples of the fabrics in the clothing.

Professor Karen Fleming (University of Ulster), who organized Linen Diaspora, tied the flax culture in Canada and Ireland to that passed on by Huguenots exiled fr0m France. The craft section of the biennial, her show focused on materials and tools related to flax production—but leaned toward conceptual objects.** 14 Irish and Canadian craftspeople, all masters in their disciplines, considered the transmission of cultural knowledge through material means.

Migration was the subject of Mapping Memory by Liz Nilsson, a native Swede now living in the Republic of Ireland. She placed patches fr0m linen tablecloths on a chart recording the journey of her life. Since many works here directly referenced historical domestic artifacts, they fit seamlessly into the Moulin de la Chevrotiere — a 19th century stone structure in Deschambault-Grondines. Of note were Martha Cashman’s oversized clay spoons, Susan Warner Keene’s paper panels hand-made fr0m flax, and Carol Freve’s bottles—reminiscent of containers taking messages through the sea encased in cloths imprinted with vintage images.

A 4th exhibition, the Ulster Linen Memorial at the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, Portneuf, coincided with the biennial but is an independent touring exhibition curated by Dr. Lycia Trouton, a resident of Canada who was born in Belfast. Carol Russell’s review of this homage to victims of Ireland’s “Troubles” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Surface Design Journal.

Looking toward the future, the biennial’s organizers are developing a database to which exhibition curators will have access. Artists interested in working with conceptual approaches to flax and/or linen are invited to submit portfolios that will become part of this. Artwork proposals for BILP in 2013 are not a prerequisite for inclusion in the database. Send portfolios by e-mail to or by regular mail to:

Biennale internationale du lin de Portneuf
280, rue Pettigrew
Saint-Leonard, Quebec, G0A 4A0

For more information on the biennale, visit

*In September, Homemade/Handmade traveled to Gallery T at the Center for Textile Design and Printing in Montreal; next it will travel to Galleries des Ateliers de Paris, France (January 10-February 25, 2012).

**In August 2012 Linen Diaspora will be presented in Lisburn, a city near Belfast, during craft month in Ireland.

1 Comment

  • Lycia Trouton says

    March 4, 2012 at 11:19 am

    Wonderful overview, especially as an associated installation artist with :)

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